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Are the issues that divide feminists more significant than those that unite them?

Feminism can be argued to be a political ideology in which there are more divisions of opinion than any other. Whilst the three main strands of feminism – liberal feminism, socialist feminism and radical feminism take different approaches to the problem of how to achieve equality for women, even within these strands there are smaller ideological groups such as black feminists or lesbian feminists who disagree with each other. These differences of opinion are evident in almost all matters that are of concern to feminists and furthermore they are not just slight differences, but can often be seen to be completely contrasting. For example on the issue of pornography some feminists believe it is degrading to women and should be banned whilst others believe it can be a form of female empowerment. At first glance such divisive issues would seem to be extremely significant to feminism as an ideology, making it contradictory and incoherent. However on closer examination it can be seen that the issues on which feminists agree, such as patriarchy, are of greater significance as they are what define feminist beliefs. Furthermore differences in opinion do not necessarily weaken feminism as an ideology, but allow genuine political debate and ideological growth, which can be seen as a strength. Therefore the issues that divide feminists are not more significant than those that unite them.

One of the most fundamental ideas that unites all feminists is a belief in patriarchy – a system of discrimination against women by men. This is such a strong force because it is ingrained in all areas of male-female relations, including legal, political, economic, cultural, psychological and sexual spheres. A belief in patriarchy is hugely significant as an uniting force for feminists as it means they have a common goal – to eradicate this system. It could be argued that because different types of feminists focus on different areas of patriarchy this goal lacks clarity as an ideological aim. It is true that the differences are evident, liberal feminists such as Betty Friedan attack legal and cultural patriarchy, for example the campaigns during the sixties and seventies for legalised abortion, the fact that abortion was illegal can be seen as male domination over women’s bodies. Meanwhile socialist feminists emphasise the economic exploitation of women, for example the fact that in the U.K. today they are paid 18% less than men for the same work. Radical feminists focus on sexual and psychological exploitation, for example Kate Millett identifies patriarchy in the family, where the father is dominant, seeing this as both connected to society, and mirroring it. However these differences are merely differences in terms of focus on where patriarchy exists. Ultimately where feminists choose to place their emphasis regarding patriarchy is less significant than the fact that they are all unified in fighting against it because all feminists do accept that patriarchy is evident in a variety of spheres. Therefore it is necessary and beneficial for feminists to take different stances, as they are still representative of the beliefs of feminism as an ideological whole. For example radical feminists do not believe that patriarchy can be eliminated through legal reforms alone but in the 1960s and 1970s they still participated in protests against patriarchal laws. This demonstrates that whilst differences in opinion over patriarchy might seem significant in theory, in practice this is not so. Different strands of feminism are in no way entirely separate from each other, in relation to their views on patriarchy they compliment each other by addressing all areas in which patriarchy is present. It is therefore this uniting belief that is of more significance for feminism.

Another central area of unity for feminists is a view that sex and gender are two different concepts, rather than one and the same. Sex refers to the biological distinctions between men and women, for example women have the ability to give birth. Gender indicates socially conditioned male and female traits that are not inevitable and can vary between cultures, for example that women are concerned with caring for others rather than accelerating their own position. Gender stereotypes are ingrained by society from an early age, for example girls are encouraged to play with dolls rather than trucks and are disciplined to a greater extent for bad behaviour, whilst it is often accepted that ‘boys will be boys’. The concept of gender can be well illustrated with Simone de Beauvoir’s famous quote ‘women are made, they are not born’. A hugely significant point of agreement for feminists is that women are discriminated against on the basis of gender distinctions, and that this is unfair because human nature is androgynous – it incorporates what are traditionally seen to be characteristics of each sex. It can be argued, however, that critical divisions are evident within this issue, for example difference feminists suggests that in actuality women and men are essentially different. These feminists identify positive feminine qualities such as a desire to nurture and argue that these should be celebrated. In theory this would be extremely significant as it appears to suggest something almost entirely opposing the eradication of gender. This would make feminism appear to be a fragmented and incoherent ideology. However in actuality this difference of opinion is not as important as it may seem. Difference feminists still have a crucial point of unity with other feminists in terms of emphasising opposition to gender discrimination. For example all feminists would be in opposition to the fact that women receive more severe discipline than men for similar misconduct at work, which can be seen as a direct result of ingrained gender roles mentioned above. Difference feminism does not approve of gender stereotypes, it is simply taking a positive view of femininity, arguing that women should be proud to be female. Such a view is common to feminists, it was evident in the protests of the sixties and seventies, and in more recent occurrences, such as productions of ‘the vagina monologues’, which encouraged female pride and celebration of national women’s day. Therefore in practice differences regarding gender are not significant in weakening feminism as an ideology. It could be argued that there are further divisions that could be of importance, for example some feminists reject the biological distinction of the term sex, as some women do not meet the definition, for example they cannot bear children. However this is a marginal opinion difference – these feminists, like all feminists, completely oppose discrimination on the basis of sex and gender and campaign for hiring employees based on skills not gender-based assumptions of skills, equal pay for equal work and equal opportunities for promotion. Ultimately in reality it is the unity of opposition to sex and gender based discrimination rather than differences in exact beliefs concerning sex and gender that are most significant to feminists.

Feminists can also be seen to be united by a belief that politics is not just confined to the public domain. Kate Millet defined politics as ‘power-structured relationships, arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another’. Therefore for feminists politics exists within the private sphere also, for example in the workplace and most particularly in the family. The traditional divide between public and private has caused women to be largely excluded from politics, due to their ‘private’ roles as homemakers and mothers, resulting in male domination of the system. A significant point of unity for feminists is a desire to break down this divide. However divisions occur regarding how this should be done. Liberal feminists suggest that women should be given equality of opportunity to operate in the public sphere, for example by receiving the same education as males and having childcare facilities available whilst they are at work. However for radical feminists this does not go far enough into private life. They feel behaviour in the home should be considered, analysed and questioned, for example the distribution of household chores between partners or the sexual behaviour of the couple. This could be seen as a significant division, as for liberals this undermines the importance of individual freedoms – as long as there is equality of opportunity individuals can choose to behave as they wish, for example if a women wishes to be sexually submissive it is her own personal choice. In contrast radical feminists believe more extreme measures are needed to break down the public/private divide, such as separation of men and women. However this is not as significant a divide as it might seem. Radical feminists are not insisting that their methods of breaking down the public/private divide should be enforced, it is accepted that we live in a liberal society where individuals have rights. Therefore radical feminists, like other feminists, are simply trying to raise female consciousness in relation to the public/private divide and offering what they see as the best solution. It is this unifying idea of raising consciousness that in reality is most important for feminists, as if women are consciousness of their oppressed position they will rise to fight against it and eliminate the public/private divide to an extent with which they feel satisfied. Different theories exist as inspiration for this, as well as providing genuine political debate, but ultimately the divisions are not as significant as they may seem, as the most important point is consciousness raising, and from there it is up to individual women to choose their own routes.

The desire to eliminate patriarchy and gender discrimination in both the public and private domains leads logically to a unifying feminist goal – equality. Feminists are evidently united in their belief that women have traditionally been viewed as inferior to men. This is seen as unfair, women are in theory equal and the ultimate aim on which feminists can agree is to achieve this equality in practice. Nevertheless notable divisions do exist between feminists with regard to this most important of aims. Different types of feminists support different types of equality. For liberal feminists equality must be legal – there should not be different laws regarding men and women, equality of opportunity to participate in public life must exist. Socialist feminists consider equality to be economically defined – power comes from financial prosperity and therefore it should be ensured that both sexes have the same economic opportunities and rewards, for example equal pay for equal work. Meanwhile radical feminists consider equality to have a more personal foundation, for example both sexes should be able to experience the same sexual liberation and fulfilment and equal responsibilities in family life. They believe that reform of the current system cannot be a root to genuine equality because patriarchy is so deep rooted. However even within radical feminism there are differences of opinion as to how this personal equality should be achieved. Kate Millett argues that the family should be replaced with women-only communities to raise consciousness of female worth. When this has been realised relations between men and women would resume and they would be on an equal basis. Millett terms this ‘androgynous society’. Germaine Greer also proposes that women should be separated from men in all situations where they are subject to being controlled. They should pursue sexual freedom and group living (a sort of ‘extended family’). Through this they will become sexually liberated. Shulamith Firestone advocates communities of free women. Men are no longer even necessary for reproduction. The most radical feminist view, held by Valerie Solanas, suggests that men should be eliminated altogether. In theory these ideas of equality by separation, supported by difference feminists seem a significant contrast to the suggestion of egalitarian feminists that equality can be achieved through reform of the current system. It is true that as ideals these are markedly different, which to some extent makes it uncertain what feminism as a movement is aiming for. However this does not mean they are more significant than the issues that unite feminism. Ultimately equality is a personal thing and it is up to individuals to determine how they can best achieve it. Kate Millett recognised that not all women would be content with the solution that she found satisfying. For feminists it is more significant to educate women about how they are being oppressed, for example by identifying patriarchal structures, and allow them to choose their own path to equality as opposed to there being a set path. Whilst different feminists have personal preferences regarding how to achieve equality ultimately the most significant feature of their ideology is the valuing of women that underlines this aim. This unites all feminists and is evident in their fight against gender oppression, from the legal reforms of the sixties to current protests regarding advertising. Whilst in theory the issues dividing feminists seem extremely significant, in reality this has seemed less evident.

In conclusion the issues that unite feminists may seem numerically less than those on which they are divided, but their significance should not be underestimated. Although feminists are divided by their theories and ideals. in reality they are united by a belief in women’s rights and it is this that has proved most significant in identifying feminism as a movement and helping it achieve some of its aims, most notably the legal reforms in the sixties and seventies.


This essay is aimed at people studying for A Level Politics, but will be suitable for other people too.

Originally submitted by dreamqueen on TSR Forums.

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